Health

A professor seeks proof of people with miracle memories

Memory
Image caption Can some people remember minute details of almost every day of their lives?

A psychologist from Hull University is looking for people in the UK who have a rare condition that allows them to recall an apparently incredible amount of detail about their own lives.

So far it has been found in just a handful of people, all of them in the US.

And if the condition really does exist it challenges the current models of how memory works.

But that is the question - does it really exist?

The condition was first described in a paper in the journal Neurocase in 2006 by three academics from the University of California which reported the case of a woman who could tell researchers exactly what she was doing on a particular date.

The paper describes how the woman, known as AJ, "spends an excessive amount of time recalling her personal past with considerable accuracy and reliability".

Since then a number of other people identified themselves as having similar powers but all of them have been from the US.

There is even a US TV show on CBS channel in which an implausibly attractive female detective has amazing powers of autobiographical recall.

The title? Unforgettable, of course.

'Clear and vivid'

Now Prof Giuliana Mazzoni of Hull University is keen to track down anyone in the UK who has similar powers of recall.

"The characteristics of this type of memory are a very clear and vivid memory for almost every day in a person's life.

"People are given dates - like 14th April 1981 - and they're able to tell what they were doing, where they were, what they were wearing, with whom they were speaking, what happened to them in life."

And unlike those who can perform amazing feats of memory - like recalling sequences of cards and numbers - these people seem to be able to recall details with very little effort and without using memory training techniques.

And if genuine, Prof Mazzoni says the condition poses a challenge to existing ideas on how memory works - and our own potential for developing greater powers of recall.

"For a few years now we have been thinking that in order to remember we have to abstract information.

"It is scattered information from this episode or that episode. We just maintain the gist of the information but we lose all the details.

"But apparently these people are able to remember visual details, auditory details, what they said and what they heard.

"If it is true it means that we might be able to actually have all this detailed information stored in our memory and then maybe we can all do that."

But is it real?

Prof Mazzoni was initially sceptical over reports of people seem to have an almost total recall of their autobiographical memory.

But the more she read about the condition, the more she was convinced it could be feasible.

"The evidence that I have seen up until now has overcome my initial scepticism.

"At the beginning I really thought that it was a made-up situation.

"But after having read the main scientific article and having read what these people report about their lives and having seen that their memory is accurate, I think it is a real condition that deserves to be studied."

"I'd really love to find them. I'd really love to know everything about them.

"I think the number will be relatively limited but we are setting up a study in which we will study their memory and can compare their memory to the memory of people like me who has a very normal autobiographical memory."

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